ymMBA: Today’s special

Series of posts titled “Your movie MBA”, where we’re using famous hindi movie lines to make management gyan more approachable. So you thought you couldn’t learn anything from a David Dhawan-Kader Khan movie. Yep, you’re right! Unless you count that bit about the blood clot.

Of all the outrageous comedy movie settings I can recall, there could be none more moronic than Kader Khan’s greedy landlord in “Mujhse Shaadi Karogi” where the running gag is that Kader Khan has a mysterious blood clot in his brain. Everyday he wakes up, the clot shifts to another part of his brain, stopping the flow of sensory information from another part of his brain. One day he wakes up deaf, while another he is blind, mute, mad, and so on. Being that the clot is inside Kader Khan’s brain, the people around him cannot tell what’s broken that day, and find it enormously inconvenient to interact with him.So this guy walks up to him and starts talking, only to realize a 5 minute monologue later that “Aaj Bahre Hain” (today’s special: deaf). How much damage can this do to a guy’s social life, especially in the era before facebook? Kader Khan comes up with a unique device to improve his social interactions- he uses a white board to announce his “malady of the day”. As you’ll see in the screen grab below, the board of the day says “Aaj Andhe Hain” (today’s special: blindness). This eases things tremendously. Now visitors can alter their communication style based on what’s missing that day. You walk up to the man, read up the special, and choose to communicate accordingly. QED.

Go to the 5:17s mark for the sequence.

And you’re still wondering, what the!? What could possibly be the practical use of this wisdom? You’ve got this golden nugget from me, and yet you are unable to encash it, or tuck it away in some cranny in your brain to use it later. All this wisdom, and nowhere to put it to use…let me tell you something. Top secret. Come closer so I can whisper it into you ear.

Psst…the company you work for has a brain clot too.

Sometimes its Aaj Green Hain, (Today’s special: Green), while other times its Aaj High Growth Hain. You never know where the clot has hit the company, and what’s the fad of the month. If you read the company wrong, you’re still talking green while the company has woken up overnight to the joys of profitable growth, or global integration, or, I don’t know, saving the african rhino.

Do yourself and your company a favor- Get with the program, people! Go and figure out what your company’s fad is today.

Once you find out, put it on the white board to let everyone know today’s special.

ymMBA: Dog of Dance

Series of posts titled “Your movie MBA”, where we’re using famous hindi movie lines to make management gyan more approachable. Today’s theme-customer segmentation! The source material is illegal phone-taps, so reader discretion advised.

Follows this base post. And oh! This is fictionalized.

In the wake of 2010’s 2G scandal in India, newspaper offices have become used to receiving strange packets with USB memory sticks full of illicitly recorded telephone conversation. One such package arrived at our doorstep yesterday, marked simply “Gabriel’s Dogs, 1994“. Our curiosity piqued, we plugged in the USB drive to hear the inner workings of the IT industry in its infancy. The year was 1994, and this was a recording of a conversation between Virendra, VipInTa Technologies’ founder, and Haema, the company’s relationship manager with Gabriel Electric. Haema, as readers will recall, later became (in)famous as a corporate lobbyist and her other phone recordings have already been made public. It appears that Haema’s calls were being tapped much earlier in her career as well. This was one of the recordings. The uncut transcript is below.

Haema: Veeru, this is me. I know it’s late…sorry…but I need to talk with you urgently ya!

Virendra: Haan bol! Did you get any sleep? Those crazy guys at Gabriel have made me completely sleepless. I don’t know why we have to do this renegotiation tamasha every year. Why don’t they bloody ask for our first-borns and right arm as well? Buggers!

Haema: No ya! I didn’t get much sleep either. I was working with Balu on the financials. If we give Gabriel’s guys any more discount, we will make no money on the deal at all. Balu is furious, and I am ready to give up now. It’s your company, ya!, you tell me what you want to do!

Virendra: Arrey…we gave them a discount last year as well. They keep coming back every year to arm-twist. Tu aisa kar, you tell them that you’re not able to reach me. Let them give us some more time.

Haema: What are you saying Veeru? This is our largest client, and they are negotiating with all the other desi companies. I can’t just go and tell them I can’t reach you. Tell something else…should I just give the discount, and we will try to be better prepared next year?

Virendra: Basanti..<audio garbled>

Haema: Hellow?! What did you say?

Virendra: <muffled audio> Basa…ton ke saam…<muffled audio>

Haema: Can you repeat? Your voice is cutting off…Hellow?! Should I call back?

Virendra: Basanti, in kutton ke saamne mat naachna! <translated: Don’t dance for these dogs>

<Editor’s note> Customer segmentation is a very important part of a company’s strategy. Not all clients are alike, and some clients are not worth having. VipInTa had run into a very big problem- their biggest customer, Gabriel Electric, was now a problem client. Gabriel’s men routinely came down to India to ask for discounts, and the relationship had become toxic. Veeru had to decide whether to continue to give discount to the single client that gave them 40% of revenues, or to walk away and take their chances with other more profitable clients. They chose to walk away, and the rest is history. The company still doesn’t do any business with Gabriel’s men, but happens to make the most profits in the industry. Those who danced for Gabriel’s negotiators have had to sell their companies for a deep discount. (Non-fictionalized version of the story here at #19). (Non-fictionalized reference to a company that likes dancing for Gabriel is here. They sold the company in early 2011, at a fraction of the valuation of the other companies in their industry. Cheap clients make poor business partners!).

Not all customers are alike. Learn to pick well. That’s your bollywood line for the day.

Basanti, in kutton ke saamne mat nachna! Can there be a more iconic bollywood line? For those who slept through the 1970s, the line is from Sholay, and involved Hema Malini (as Basanti) and Dharmendra’s character-Veeru. Veeru is strapped to a pole, and the arch-villain Gabbar’s henchmen have asked Basanti to dance on shards of broker glass as a life-line to save her boyfriend Veeru. Incensed, Veeru is asking Basanti not to dance. She does. He lives. Happy Ending, bollywood ishtyle.

ymMBA: Empowerment and initiative

This is in the series of posts titled “Your movie MBA”, where we’re using famous hindi movie lines to make management wisdom more approachable. The opening post is here.

We have all come across people in our professional life who go above and beyond the brief and deliver that truly “Wow!” experience. People who don’t refer to their job descriptions every day, but go do whatever it takes to get the job done. The “Can do”  people. They don’t need direction, go out on a limb, have distinct personalities, and create their own momentum. The A players. The goto guys. The movers and shakers. The “buck stops here” heroes. You know the type.

Are you one?

Unfortunately, most people in corporate situations are far removed from this ideal. They find themselves under-empowered, at the mercy of forces outside themselves, and desperately in need of coffee and carrots to get their job done. They have excuses for answers, and hyperlinks for results (ask him, tell her, don’t look at me!). The buck passers. So who’s to blame? Is there a simple way to check if we’re in this rut, and what to do to get out of it?

The movie “Khosla Ka Ghosla” is a fantastic comedy about underdogs who con a Conman. The capital C Conman is a land-shark, and has stolen the underdogs’ land. The underdogs enlist the help of a drama troupe to create an elaborate ruse about a wealthy NRI who needs to sell his land to the Conman. To get access to the Conman, the drama company must first get through the Conman’s underling, a lowly property broker. In their first meeting, the drama company must convince the broker of their wealth and power, and the actor playing the role delivers brilliantly with a 5-word question that I propose must be embossed in gold and adorn the desks of all self-respecting professionals. He asks, “Aap broker hain ya party?” (Are you a BROKER or a PARTY). The insinuation being that no one wants to deal with a middle-man, a broker or an underling. No business discussions are real unless the opposite party is a PARTY- someone who has the authority to make decisions, take risks and is accountable for results.

(read on below the video …post abhi baaki hai mere dost)

Go to the 1:55s mark for the sequence.

So do yourself a favor and ask yourself this question- “In what I do, am I a BROKER or a PARTY“? Am I just acting on behalf of others, have no real decision making authority, and have no stake in the outcome? Am I just making excuses for my performance. Do I blame others for what’s going on around me? If that’s the case, why should anyone respect me professionally…I’m just a broker, no!? A broker that has no skin in the game, no real value addition, no accountability and no reason to be part of any decisions. Am I just a broker? Do I want to be one?

Ask yourself, How can I become a PARTY instead? How can I take more accountability for the bottomline. How can I bring the locus of control back to me? How do I exude can-do confidence in my dealings, proud of my rights, aware of my duties and ready to take all the risks and rewards in this transaction? How can I stop slouching and start standing up for what I believe in?

Don’t be a broker. Take charge! Be the PARTY!

You have my permission!

Your Movie MBA: Bring us your dialogs

Keen to revitalize our flagging blogging enterprise, we have come up with a uniquely desi formula. We will use iconic movie dialogs from hindi movies to deliver management gyan. In what we hope will be seen retrospectively as a brilliant marketing move that sparked international frenzy and fandom, we will use this platform to advance dubious management insights based on famous movie lines.

That’s the plot, or the twist in the plot. Mogambo, khush hua?!

We could choose hollywood lines as well as bollywood, but our desi hearts are etched deepest in hindi. Nary an NRI meeting is consummated until someone brings forth a gem from deep inside. Who can reject the cultural significance of “Mere paas Ma hai“, or “Jaani, yeh bachchon ke khelne ki cheez nahi hai“, or even “Kitne Aadmi thhey“? Who amongst us has not used the line “Thoda khao thoda phenko” to explain to their host why the excess pulaoo at the party must be thrown away?



Broker ya Party?

Basanti, in kutton ke saamne mat nachna

Aaj Andhe Hain

Facebook spam profiles revisited: the plot thickens

One of the most enduring posts on this blog has been my post on facebook spam. When I wrote the post last year I was cautious enough to not name names, and to leave the obvious conclusion unstated- that some person had made fake profiles using pretty women’s photos. That post has been at the top of this blog’s most visited posts, for whatever reason!

Over the new year’s break, I revisited the story to see what’s going on. It was time something interesting happened. My patience was rewarded! Before you read further, (1) please read my previous post, (2) google “anupama kumar”, and (3) look up Namita Uppal on facebook, making to sure to scan through her “wall”. Come back when you’re ready.

What did you find? You found what was obvious a year ago! Some guy…most likely “Hassan Sayeed” (4) see him on facebook now in two glorious profiles one and two, has created fake profiles using model-quality-women’s photos, and is using social engineering to “Friend” more people. Then, he is using these drone profiles (really, drone profiles?! They should be called “queen bee profiles”) to drive traffic to his own facebook page for weight-loss products called Inches Off.

Very clever ploy, and one that most people find difficult to ignore!

Now imagine the plight of Ms. Anupama Kumar, mother, actress, model and now, unfortunately, identity-theft victim? She’s now posting on “Namita Uppal’s” wall to ask her to change her photo. One fake profile identified. Scores of other profiles to go!

This year- Go to 11

As we begin this year I am reminded of a witty quip made half a lifetime ago by my friend Arvind Mathur, a couple of years junior in college. To welcome the fresh batch of students at our college, we had set up a talent show and asked people to fill out a form. Being clever and all, we thought of tripping the freshers with a googly. We asked- “What is your name? Please tell us why“. We got the usual lame answers about the meaning of people’s names, going somewhat like “My name is Gaurav because my parents are proud of me”. Gaurav means pride. (As a side note, meanings of first names are a big deal in India, but a completely alien concept here in the US. Peter means father and rock, but John? John’s just a number between 1 and 3). All answers were lame except for one guy- Arvind, who wrote back an answer that has stuck in my mind even though I am sure he has himself forgotten it. He wrote, “My name is Arvind. Why? Because I am used to the best“! No tripe about what the name means and whether it’s unique or not. No sir. I don’t settle for less in anything, so why would I compromise on my name?!

Consider this your guidance for the rest of this year! Get used to the best!

For the new year, my sincerest wish is for everyone to set their dial to 11. Don’t settle for artificial limits placed on what is possible and what is right for you to do. Don’t give in to nonsense about what is safe and what needs fixing. Ignore those naysayers who ask you to stay within the limits of zero-to-ten. Don’t freeze at 5 because that’s the safe thing to do. Don’t balk at 3, thinking the guys at 5 will scoff at you! Don’t panic when you first redline past 9. Don’t stop, keep going, keep up the momentum and push the pedal harder, until the rattle becomes a hum and the noise trails off, pushing limits you didn’t think possible, harder until you lose your fear of the ordinary, what was extreme now appearing  normal and what was normal appearing inadequate, gathering momentum till you don’t remember, and don’t care, where you started from, aware more of your new-found energy than you are of your two bit start (don’t stop), afraid to stop doing what you’re on to, because that would be harder, ordinary rules of grammar and logic stop applying to you anymore, destiny asking you to go on, not stop, because now you are a force unto yourself, a force of nature that doesn’t stop when the gauge hits 10.

Go to eleven, because you are who you are, and in what you do, YOU go to eleven. Let others stay cozy at a mediocre 6 on a 10-point-scale.

Stop doing things out of habit. Stop doing things you’re not good at (except if they are hygiene items like brushing and flossing). Stop doing things that take up your time and mindshare. Clear out all that clutter, and create space for things that you are good great at. Things that you can go to eleven on. Then go to eleven.

Speaking for myself, this means I want to be a net contributor of content, not a net-consumer of content. I want to convey more ideas more succinctly than anyone has ever done before. I have replaced my twin-blade razor with a six-blade razor. My expensive “good” car with an even more expensive “great” car (Oh! Joy!). My ballpoint pen with a fountainpen and bulletproof ink. (Take that, forgers!). My high fiber cereal with a triple-dose-fiber-max cereal-o-saurus. I’m pulling all stops. I am going to bring passion and energy to my favorite projects, leaving other projects to fate and others’ goodwill.

Starting 2011, I am planning to go to 11, and so should you.

– – –

PS: The “goes to eleven” reference is a pop-culture reference from a mocumentary “This is Spinal Tap”. An excellent waste of time on this subject is here: TV Tropes Up to 11

Fixing workshop design

This is a continuation of my previous post here. I’m talking in this piece about how to improve workshop and meeting design to get the best out of people.

Start with recognizing the humans in the meeting: It’s surprising how many meetings start without enough time spent in introductions and pleasantries. Many people (of the teutonic bent, perhaps) consider introductions a waste of productive time. Let’s get on with it! That’s a big mistake. How can people speak their minds freely if they don’t know who’s listening to them? How do people get over their natural respect for authority and participate in meetings, if their presence are not even acknowledged?

I’m not suggesting that people spend 2 hours doing ice-breakers and introductions. What I have seen working is to deliberately spend the first few minutes of the meeting in light banter, making sure to address the junior-most person in the meeting directly. Put out name tags in front of everybody. When someone speaks up for the first time, ask them to introduce themselves. Simple stuff.

Amit reminded me of the fantastic anecdote from Dr. Atul Gawande (surgeon and fantastic author) about how he saw a notable improvement in operation theater dynamics by simply insisting that the doctors and nurses introduce themselves to each other before the operation began. What this did was to lower the nurses’ fear of speaking up. When they saw the doctors make a mistake, of miss an important observation, they felt they had the permission to speak up. The team made much lesser mistakes as a result.

Imagine the END first: Once again, so many meetings begin with a PowerPoint agenda slide that fails to excite people about the real destination of the meeting. Are we going to walk out of this meeting with an agreement on the key points of difference? Are we going to walk out of this meeting with a fully built prototype? Are we going to end this meeting as friends?

Everyone who comes to the meeting has some expectations of what they’re about to go through. It’s best to start by making sure that everyone has the same picture in mind, so that everyone can work together to get there.

Tell a STORY that sparks imagination: In the same vein as the previous point. It’s not enough to present dry facts and data throughout the meeting. People get bored by these. Instead, be ready to tell stories to spark everyone’s imagination. If we do it right, we could be the BIGGEST account in the company! or This new product will make us all very rich! or We’ll be able to achieve things that people haven’t been able to achieve in the last 30 years. We’ll be superstars! Not everything has to be rah rah, of course. Here’s another story Our company is in deep trouble. If we don’t pull this through, we will soon have to file for bankrupcy. We’re all going to have to look for new jobs then!

Stay Rooted in Reality: Another problem with mindless statistics, stupidly written presentations, and poorly crafted agenda slides is that the conversation can get very abstract. It is very important to have a Laloo-style earthy person in the room to bring everyone back to ground reality. Always keep checking if the data and decisions that are being discussed are connected with reality. If not, someone is blowing smoke in your face.

Pace: Carry, don’t Tarry. The more people you have in the room, the higher the probability that someone is drifting away into daydreamland. The pace of the discussions needs to be slow enough to carry everyone along, but not so slow that the police book you on loitering charges. Carry, but don’t tarry.

Pause and Refresh: Amazing how many people think that the death-march is the best way to get full value out of the meeting. On the contrary, inserting in time gaps into the meeting allows everyone to absorb everything that has happened so far, and be mentally prepared to enter the next conversation. Otherwise, you’re likely to get “stack overflow”.

What does it mean?: In case you haven’t been wasting time on the internet this summer, please put the phrase “double rainbow what does it mean” into Google. You will soon be taken to one of the most infectious internet memes of the year. A hippie dude flips out when he sees a double rainbow outside his house, and then spends the next 3 minutes running around, gasping for breath, invoking the almighty, and wondering “what does it mean”! Humans are a meaning driven species, and it is very important that all meetings end with a “what does it mean” recap. People will derive meaning anyway. It’s best if they share the same meaning as you.

The Art of Choosing

Our batchmate Niranjana (featured on the blogroll on the right) has taken it upon herself to keep up the book reading averages for the entire MBA batch. On her fantastic site you can see her reviews of gazillion books. One that I’d like to point special attention to an interview she did with the author or The Art of Choosing, Sheena Iyengar.

Sheena was also featured in a recent NYTimes interview around the same book, and she has a few snazzy YouTube videos about her book as well. Niranjana’s interview can be found here, and is excerpted below:

If Sheena Iyengar’s name seems familiar, it’s probably because you read about her research on consumer choice work in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School, now has her own book out. The Art of Choosing deals with choice in all its aspects, across fields as varied as music, art, and medicine, and draws on everything from pop culture to brain imaging technology. Iyengar also mines her personal life for this book, and her choices — to study psychology at Stanford, to marry a man from outside her religion, to use sighted language although she is blind — are at least as fascinating as her research findings.

Can we really be choosy choosers when it comes to branding? You mention in your book, for instance, that Lancome’s Mousse Makeup and Maybelline’s Mousse Foundation are made in the same factory, are nearly identical in their composition, and that experts have detected no difference in their performance, but L’Oreal, which owns both brands, sells the first at $37 and the other at $8.99. You cite several such examples of nearly identical products being branded and priced very differently. All this almost suggests to me that we consumers are often the dupes of these large corporations.

Are companies trying to manipulate us? Yes. Companies use branding to create differentiation when there’s very little actual difference because the market is so crowded.

Should we worry about being manipulated? Only if it’s in a domain that’s important to us. You need to decide what’s important to you, and that list can’t be long. For those things, you really pull out everything, use your gut, reasoned analysis, gather information from other people. For other things, find the acceptable one. If that means you’re being manipulated, so be it.

But companies need to give a lot more thought to how they should be branding in a more honest way. It’s good for the customer and for them — they really don’t need to add irrelevant options. One of the things they can sell to the customer is that every choice we offer really counts, that it is meaningfully different from other choices.

Check out Niranjana’s other reviews at her blog.

Old and New Product Life Cycles

Fascinating interview with Deepak Puri (MD, Moser Baer) in yesterday’s edition of the Economic Times.  A couple of really interesting examples of old and new PLC management in there.

On optical discs:

“PCs and other devices are still shipping with CD drives. The installed base is large, though the demise is happening. CD is declining 5-8 % every year, DVD (sales) is flat. Bluray is rising fast. Discs will morph into something else. Volumes may come down due to better disc capacities. CD and DVD will have a long tail life and Moser Baer being the lowest cost producer will last till the end. I foresee 7-10 years’ life in optical disc space,” says Mr Puri.

This is a classic lesson in managing a slow dying product (in an old-PLC category).  As demand decreases, high-cost producers will be forced out of the market and business shifts rapidly towards the lowest cost producer.  Eventually, there are only a couple of suppliers left.  Given that optical discs will be around for some more time – given the large installed base – the last supplier left in the industry can make supernormal profits.  Since the product category would still be in decline, it’s pretty unlikely that another competitor would choose to invest in it.  Gold mine!

On the entertainment business (VCDs/DVDs):

“We don’t have resources to go across the country (to tackle piracy). We are looking at certain high piracy areas and trying to tackle the problem. We are now giving five movies compressed on one DVD. We are telling the pirate: when a legal movie is selling for Rs 35, you have to sell below that to make money and your margin is shrinking. We told people: why don’t you start selling legitimate movie, no one will run after you. Many of them have changed.”

It’s something that we had talked about in this blog sometime back.  New PLC management demands rapid proliferation of distribution channels to capitalise on the hype cycle.   Instead of cribbing about pirates, Moser Baer is making it attractive for them to go legit.  Now, if only Hollywood understood!

The rule of 10,000

We all know that it takes hard work to be good.  But just how long does it take to be really great at something?  Not just average, run-of-the-mill good – but truly great?

The answer, apparently, is 10,000 hrs.  Thats about 5 years of 8 hours of practice a day – before one can be great.  An MBA gives you a maximum of 0.5  years in a subject of your choosing.  You still need to put in the other 9.5.

For an inspiring and humbling read on the rule of 10,000, check out Amit Verma’s post.